Proof from Morality (2)

Two Big Objections

That brings up a good point. The Morality proof states quite clearly that morality can only come from a god. Is that really the case, however?

It cannot be, if the god in question is omnipotent:

  1. God X’s actions define a moral code.
  2. God X is omnipotent.
  3. God X can therefore do any action.
  4. God X is therefore capable of an immoral act.
  5. 4. contradicts 1.

There are only two ways to solve this dilemma: give up on god X providing our moral basis, or give up on that god being omnipotent. The last way certainly seems the most sensible, even if it opens us up to questions of what that god can and cannot do.

A similar argument was made by Plato 2,400 years ago. Rather than invoke omnipotence, in the Euthyphro dialogue he had Socrates invoke causality: either the gods are good because they act according to a moral code, or they are good by definition and thus form a moral code.

Here’s the problem: only one of those possibilities can be true, yet they have radically different outcomes. If a god is only following a pre-existing moral code, then it must be constrained by that code as much as we are. We’d be better off ignoring or disputing the moral pronouncements of this god, and examining the moral code directly. Most theists reject this possibility out-of-hand.

Instead, let’s go along with the idea that a god’s actions provide our moral grounding. Where does that get us?

To a very scary place, I’m afraid. That means that every action a god does is moral. Period. So when your god slaughters thousands of people, condones slavery, and pushes actions based on faulty reasoning, you have no choice but to call it moral, even as you condemn other human beings for doing the same actions. A prime example of this comes courtesy of William Lane Craig, who was asked about an instance of genocide in the Old Testament, specifically Deuteronomy 20:10-18:

God has the right to take the lives of the Canaanites when He sees fit. How long they live and when they die is up to Him.

So the problem isn’t that God ended the Canaanites’ lives. The problem is that He commanded the Israeli soldiers to end them. Isn’t that like commanding someone to commit murder? No, it’s not. Rather, since our moral duties are determined by God’s commands, it is commanding someone to do something which, in the absence of a divine command, would have been murder. The act was morally obligatory for the Israeli soldiers in virtue of God’s command, even though, had they undertaken it on their on initiative, it would have been wrong.

On divine command theory, then, God has the right to command an act, which, in the absence of a divine command, would have been sin, but which is now morally obligatory in virtue of that command.

(“Slaughter of the Canaanites.” )

There are a number of rebuttals to the Euthyphro dilemma. This is a typical example:

The Christian rejects the first option, that morality is an arbitrary function of God’s power. And he rejects the second option, that God is responsible to a higher law. There is no Law over God.

The third option is that an objective standard exists (this avoids the first horn of the dilemma). However, the standard is not external to God, but internal (avoiding the second horn). Morality is grounded in the immutable character of God, who is perfectly good. His commands are not whims, but rooted in His holiness.

Could God simply decree that torturing babies was moral? “No,” the Christian answers, “God would never do that.” It’s not a matter of command. It’s a matter of character.

(“Euthyphro’s Dilemma,” Gregory Koukl. )

So absolute morality isn’t external to God, nor determined by God’s actions, but instead equal to God. Which means it must be determined by God’s actions, but that’s OK, because God would never order us to do anything immoral.

No really, this is not only a popular counter-argument, but the most popular one by my reckoning.

The Euthyphro dilemma is actually a false dichotomy. That is, it proposes only two options when another is possible. The third option is that good is based on God’s nature. God appeals to nothing other than his own character for the standard of what is good, and then reveals what is good to us. It is wrong to lie because God cannot lie (Titus 1:2),[108] not because God had to discover lying was wrong or that he arbitrarily declared it to be wrong.

(“What is the Euthyphro dilemma?,” Matt Slick.)

There is, however, a third option. As Christians we should affirm both God’s sovereignty and His non-derived goodness. Thus, we don’t want a standard that is arbitrary nor one that exists outside or above God. Fortunately, God is both supremely sovereign and good. Therefore, God’s nature itself can serve as the standard of goodness, and God can base His declarations of goodness on Himself. God’s nature is unchangeable and wholly good; thus, His will is not arbitrary, and His declarations are always true. This solves both issues.

(“What is Euthyphro’s Dilemma?,” )

But it might be permissible to lay down two negations: that God neither obeys nor creates the moral law. The good is uncreated; it could never have been otherwise; it has in it no shadow of contingency; it lies, as Plato said, on the other side of existence. […] But we, favored beyond the wisest pagans, knows what lies beyond existence, what admits no contingency, what lends divinity to all else, what is the ground of all existence, in not simply a law but also a begetting love, a love begotten, and the love which, being between these two, is also immanent in all those who are caught up to share the unity of their self-caused life. God is not merely good, but goodness; goodness is not merely divine, but God.

(“Christian Reflections,” C.S. Lewis. pg. 80)

There are other approaches, most notably this:

But the view which I am putting forward takes the first horn form for some obligations and the second for others. I suggest that we ought not to rape, or break a just promise (that is one which we had the right to make), whether or not there is a God; here God can only command us to do what is our duty anyway. By contrast only a divine command would make it obligatory to join in communal worship on Sundays rather than Tuesdays.

(“God and Morality,”  Richard Swinburne . Think 20, Vol. 7, Winter 2008)

Unfortunately, while dividing up morality into “necessary” and “contingent” sections seems like a good dodge, some thought reveals that it introduces more problems than it solves. You can’t rape if there’s no such thing as a universe, and most theists argue their god is responsible for the creation of universes; hence, a “necessary” moral truth is actually contingent on the existence of a god! Swinburne also tries to answer the obvious question, namely why we have to bother with the “contingent” moral codes at all, and offers up three reasons: they make good reminders of “necessary” morals, they help us work together, and they get us in the habit of doing good. All three can be done in a purely secular fashion, without the need for a god, which makes us justified in ignoring the divine portion.

Worst of all, the reliance on holy texts means this moral code is up for interpretation. Let’s return to the 613 Jewish mitzvot, specifically numbers thirty-three and thirty-four,[109] which are in this passage.

 If thou shalt hear tell concerning one of thy cities, which the LORD thy God giveth thee to dwell there, saying:
‘Certain base fellows are gone out from the midst of thee, and have drawn away the inhabitants of their city, saying: Let us go and serve other gods, which ye have not known’;
then shalt thou inquire, and make search, and ask diligently; and, behold, if it be truth, and the thing certain, that such abomination is wrought in the midst of thee;
thou shalt surely smite the inhabitants of that city with the edge of the sword, destroying it utterly, and all that is therein and the cattle thereof, with the edge of the sword.
And thou shalt gather all the spoil of it into the midst of the broad place thereof, and shall burn with fire the city, and all the spoil thereof every whit, unto the LORD thy God; and it shall be a heap for ever; it shall not be built again.

(Deuteronomy 13:13-17, Pentateuch. JPS 1917 translation)

The thirty-third mitzvot, specifically, calls for the burning of all cities that don’t worship YHWH. On the surface, this seems like a pretty clear-cut order to commit genocide. But what does it mean for YHWH to “give” you a city? Do you need the official stamp of a council of rabbis, or can it be revealed to you in a vision? Since YHWH can secretly alter the behaviour of people,[110] it’s also possible he could have steered you towards wherever you’re living right now, and this implicitly “give” you whatever patch of land you happen to be sitting on.

And how many believers in a false religion[111] do you need in a city before you burn it down? This passage talks about converting “the” inhabitants, which usually implies all of them, but it seems odd to wait until every last person worships another god before bringing on genocide, when later mitzvot make it clear that the same crime committed by a single person is worthy of death.

 If there arise in the midst of thee a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams–and he give thee a sign or a wonder,
and the sign or the wonder come to pass, whereof he spoke unto thee–saying: ‘Let us go after other gods, which thou hast not known, and let us serve them’;
thou shalt not hearken unto the words of that prophet, or unto that dreamer of dreams; for the LORD your God putteth you to proof, to know whether ye do love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.
After the LORD your God shall ye walk, and Him shall ye fear, and His commandments shall ye keep, and unto His voice shall ye hearken, and Him shall ye serve, and unto Him shall ye cleave.
And that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams, shall be put to death; because he hath spoken perversion against the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed thee out of the house of bondage, to draw thee aside out of the way which the LORD thy God commanded thee to walk in. So shalt thou put away the evil from the midst of thee.

(Deuteronomy 13:2-6,[112] Pentateuch. JPS 1917 translation)

With so many billions on the street it would be tricky to enforce the prohibition against resettlement, or the thirty-fourth mitzvot. Most cities began where they were for a reason, such as a close proximity to water or excellent soil. By forcing everyone to settle elsewhere, you’re not only giving up prime real-estate, this exodus would require destroying precious farmland to house the refugees. Note as well that YHWH explicitly bars resettlement of any ravaged city at any future time, thus devout Jews would have to guard all this rubble for an incredible length of time.[113]

Oddly enough, I don’t know of a single devout Jew who actually follows these two mitzvot. I’m quite thankful for that, but I do find it peculiar that so many Jews would interpret that passage to mean anything other than genocide.

We can generalize this problem to all religions. Even if your god possesses an absolute moral code, and even if it has communicated that code to us in some way, the interpretation of that code is the responsibility of human beings, who cannot possess an absolute moral code (because otherwise they’d have no need for this god’s moral code and the proof from morality falls apart). If it is possible for human beings to interpret, however, then it must be possible to misinterpret, and thus we cannot be sure we’re following this absolute moral code in totality; there will always be a small chance that we’re getting some part wrong. This is a huge problem, because every method of divine enlightenment involves a human middleman.

It’s as if someone crafted a perfect technique for making pottery, but only told people who were bad at the task. The results are guaranteed to be less than perfect.[114] So even if an absolute moral code existed, we could never follow it.

Or prove it, for that matter. “Absolute” implies that all possible observers would agree, given sufficient information. So let’s say we ask one hundred people if murder is bad, and all of them agree. Have we proven all observers agree? Nope. So let’s ask one billion people, and let’s say all of them agree. We still haven’t demonstrated everyone agrees. So let’s ask every single human being that has existed or will exist on this planet. Is that everyone? Nope, we still haven’t asked people who could have existed, but didn’t. Maybe one of them disagrees? It would destroy our assertion of having an absolute consensus on murder.

To many, this is a paradox. If there is no absolute moral code, why do we agree to such a large degree? Why do we consistently agree that murder is a bad idea, or that cheating is wrong?

[108] Actually, He can. See Jeremiah 20:7 and 2 Thessalonians 2:11.

[109] I’m using Maimonides’ list and ordering. A number of rabbis have developed their own mitzvot lists, some of which disagree, but Maimonides’ is the most accepted within the Jewish community.

[110] In Exodus 4:21, 9:12, and 10:20 (amongst others) YHWH hardens Pharaoh’s heart. Of course, according to Exodus 8:32 and 9:34 (amongst a few more) Pharaoh hardens his own heart. I’ve already mentioned 2 Thessalonians 2:11-13, too, where God deludes people into believing lies.

[111] Religion may not be necessary, either; while this passage explicitly mentions worshipping the wrong gods, that could be considered a metaphor for idolatry in general. And some rabbis [INSERT CITATION HERE] hold that any reproduction of the human form is a type of idolatry.[FUTURE HJH: Almost!] So in the most extreme interpretation, any city, town or village where someone has a photo or drawing of a human on their wall must be burnt to the ground.

[112] That’s not a typo, mitzvot fourty-three does refer to a passage which proceeds thirty-three and thirty-four. Maimonides arranged his list by category, not order.

[113]  Current estimates suggest the oceans will boil away in 500 million to one billion years, and that in four billion or so our Sun might expand out and swallow our planet. The former might not kill off all life on this planet, depending on how sophisticated the technology of the day is, and the second isn’t guaranteed to happen. Those Jewish guards may want to pack a lunch…

[114]  I’ll reuse this argument in the proof from holy texts, by the way. Adjust your reading plans appropriately.